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Blind justice: reimagining a mana wāhine legal system

A bold new book sees women rewriting historical judgments and dismantling how our legal framework is seen in indigenous and feminist terms.

We hear much about the growing economic inequality in our society but rarely do we hear about how accepted frameworks, such as the rule of law and the associated legal system, contribute to and reinforce structural inequality. Feminist Judgments of Aotearoa New Zealand examines our country’s legal framework and demonstrates that it is not the neutral player it is often presumed to be. Indeed, this book demonstrates that for many, particularly women and Māori women, the existing framework does not deliver justice. Feminist Judgments goes much deeper than an examination of existing systems. It queries, reimagines and provides examples of how the legal process in Aotearoa could be different; how it could better reflect the lived experiences of those who find themselves caught up in its processes.

Building on projects undertaken in other parts of the world, mainly the UK, Canada, Australia and Northern Ireland, the book’s editors – Elisabeth McDonald, Rhonda Powell, Māmari Stephens and Rosemary Hunter ­– sought to “provide the reader with a new perspective, or even, new perspectives in the reading of New Zealand law”. Existing legal judgments have been examined and rewritten from feminist and mana wāhine points of view. The result are judgments that serve to close the gap between the lived reality of women, the legislative framework and its interpretation in the courts.

Feminist Judgments of Aotearoa New Zealand Te Rino: A Two Stranded Rope (Bloomsbury). Edited by Elisabeth McDonald, Rhonda Powell, Māmari Stephens, Rosemary Hunter.

The enthusiasm for this project from the four editors and over fifty contributors is evident in the introductory chapters. This is a book that has been written and researched collaboratively – an approach that aligns with the book’s proposition for an alternative to a combative, adversarial legal system.

The book is divided into two sections. The first few chapters describe the process undertaken in the writing of this book and the international feminist judgments project. They provide an explanation of the nature of the New Zealand legal system, including Māori legal thought and most significantly for our country, provide a framework “from a perspective that upholds mana wahine”. Mana wahine is described as “an approach to an initiative or project that places Māori women and the primary concerns of Māori women at its centre.” A unifying framework for the writing of these mana wahine judgments is given and this framework is one that sets the Aotearoa project apart from its sister projects around the world.

The second and lengthier section, is comprised of the feminist judgments themselves. It is helpfully divided into three more sections – rights, equality and relationality; land and natural resources, and crime. Within each section the judgments are further categorised making it easy for the reader to isolate cases in their area of interest. As these judgments are rewritings of actual judgments from the New Zealand court system, a commentary on the historical context of the time of the writing of the original judgment is provided. Each feminist judgment is followed by its own commentary.

The 25 judgments cover a wide range of situations which will be familiar to those working in areas of inequality and social justice. The courts are rightly seen as an arena to address wrongs, but this book shows us how, frequently, attempts to seek justice are thwarted by inaccessibility; interpretations of the ‘facts’; implicit bias and a failure to not only hear all the voices of those who come before it, but to give undue credence to some over others. The feminist and mana wahine judgments follow a different process, one that centralises the women’s cultural and social context, and listens to their stories.

Feminist concepts are pivotal in this book. Intersectionality is explored and modelled. The writers to do not take a one size fits all approach. While the majority of cases deal with matters in which women have been wronged, an ethic of care philosophy has been used to rewrite a judgment concerning the environment. This, and other themes in the judgments, demonstrate that a feminist approach to the law would be beneficial to a wider range of subjects outside of those covered in this book.

In providing new perspectives, the writers have had to examine a legal system in our country that was imported from England and imposed by this country’s colonising power in the early 19th century. It is a hierarchical, adversarial system with deference to precedent in argument and judgment. It has honoured the legal methods of the coloniser and dismissed the practices that already existed in Aotearoa to address conflict and disagreement. While our system has evolved and changed in minor ways, it still relies on an imposed structure that emerged from a time when women had no legal standing and no right to vote. This book successfully provides an alternative method which seeks to redress the inequalities that have resulted from and are entrenched by, the present legal system.

Audre Lorde’s powerful statement that “the master’s tools will never be used to dismantle the master’s house” immediately came to mind when I received this book. Te Rino Feminist Judgments of Aotearoa New Zealand reclaims these tools. It is an illuminating contribution to initiatives to adapt the existing framework of the legal system, and particularly the way in which judgments are decided and written, to be fully inclusive and to better reflect the society in which it operates.

Julie Timmins is one of the founders of Child Poverty Action Group and a trustee of Ngā Tangata Microfinance. She has a Masters in Equality Studies from UCD Dublin and is currently heading the Double Standards campaign to bring attention to how beneficiaries (specifically women) are treated in the legal system.

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